How John Danaher’s Leg Lock Philosophy Is Changing The Fundamentals Of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

John Danaher, who is largely responsible for changing the perspective of leg locks in today’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu culture, has created a leg locking system that is now used by the ‘Danaher Death Squad’ to incredible success in competitions and tournaments around the world. Notable members of the ‘Danaher Death Squad’ include Gordon Ryan, Garry Tonon, and Nicky Ryan.

The group rose to notoriety because of their unbelievable ability to control their opponent using leg locking techniques. Danaher’s system is extremely effective and has caused a sense of panic in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community at a high-level because many elite competitors are failing to comprehend and defend the leg attacks from Ryan, Tonon, and now the 16-year-old Nicky Ryan.

Fortunately, we gained some valuable insight into the methodologies and practices of John Danaher as he sat down with Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Experience MMA Show last week.

Danaher’s incredible persistence to create virtually unstoppable leg locking techniques stemmed from just one sentence from Dean Lister.
Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?”

Lister, who was at the time regarded for his efficiency with Achilles lock techniques, is strangely responsible for kick-starting the entire ‘Danaher Death Squad’ campaign.

When an inquisitive Danaher asked Lister about his unusual tendency to attempt Achilles locks and attack the legs of an opponent, Lister responded by saying “Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?” To Danaher, this was the moment that changed everything.

See, Lister didn’t share a technique, method, or even a demonstration with Danaher, but instead, he shared a point of view that would change the perception of the sport as he knew it.

With this renewed look at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Danaher began studying leg locks and started to try and understand why people were shying away from using the techniques.


Why was it ignored?

Danaher soon found out that there were two major criticisms of leg locks at the time:
  1. Leg locks are too dangerous
  2. Leg locks don’t work

To the amusement of Danaher, these two arguments also clearly contradicted each other.

The other major criticism of leg locks at the time was that they were ‘positionally unsound’. Danaher explained to Rogan that this same criticism applies to many other submissions, including armbars and guillotine chokes from full mount for example.


The four steps of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

John Danaher

But most importantly, Danaher discovered that the whole concept of leg locks was against the traditional understanding of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Danaher explained the four distinct steps that we all (maybe unconsciously) follow:
  1. Take your opponent to the ground
  2. Get past the dangerous legs of your opponent
  3. Work your way through a hierarchy of pins which are increasingly merited for the ability to strike your opponent and inflict damage
  4. Attack with a submission

These four steps are Danaher’s perspective of the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Why do we take our opponent to the ground? Danaher precisely explains that the reason we take someone to the ground is that it removes the ability and opportunity for explosive movements. Quite simply, by taking the legs away from a fighter, you are removing one of the most dangerous aspects of fighting.

Secondly, the legs remain as a dangerous obstacle for any Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner. Of course, they can recover guard and assist with leverage, but as we will discover later, they are also a brilliant way to control your opponent using many different leg lock techniques.

Third of all, Danaher explained that the objective is to work our way through a hierarchy of pins. Notice that he didn’t simply state ‘pass the guard’, instead, he speaks of advancing to positions that are merited increasingly depending on their ability for the attacker to inflict damage with strikes.

And lastly, after all of these steps have been achieved, only then should we attempt a submission.


Breaking the system

Danaher, through his intense studies, realized that leg locking doesn’t really fit into this traditional four-step method as outlined above.

See, leg lock entries mostly come from the bottom position, and it is no secret that these positions were previously viewed as inferior. It almost seems against the objective, if following the four-step process, to attack the legs of an opponent.

As such, leg locks had always been viewed as a last resort option – a submission attempt if all else had failed. Because of this, attempting leg locks also resulted in people thinking that you were a ‘bad’ Jiu-Jitsu player because you weren’t able to secure a dominant position.

But by understanding the process, and strategies behind leg locking, Danaher realized that he wasn’t just looking for a way to implement these techniques but he was actually shifting the whole direction of the sport.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu had always been about the movement from the legs to the head; it would always go in one direction. If you were stopped, or unable to pass, you would start again.

But once you add leg locks into the mix, the sport becomes a two-direction sport. Rather than just advancing up the body, you can now move from top to bottom. Of course, this also opens up more submissions than the traditional style of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.


Control, not position

The key finding of Danaher’s studies was that it was no longer about achieving a dominant position, or a position at all.

In fact, his focus soon shifted toward achieving control, not a position in particular.

Danaher explained that all the most dominant submissions in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu have control as a dominant feature. As such, he developed ways to attack the legs of an opponent that were largely based upon control.

And to this day, Danaher’s system largely revolves around the Ashi Garami position because it allows for spectacular control of an opponent.

Because of this advancement, many people have had an incorrect understanding of leg locking techniques. For example, rather than saying someone is excellent at heel hooks, it is often more accurate to say that they are skillful at being able to control the position.

Another important concept of Danaher’s understanding of control was ‘Double Trouble’. Danaher explained that 90% of an opponent’s resistance to a leg lock attempt was from the ‘free’ leg, that is the leg that is not being attacked. Therefore, Danaher expresses that it is of more importance to control the other leg than the one that is in danger. ‘Double Trouble’ refers to the control of both of an opponent’s legs. An example is if you have a triangle lock on the leg that you are attacking, but you have also secured an overhook on their other leg.


Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an ever-evolving martial art, and John Danaher is one of the prominent figures at the forefront, responsible for pushing the sport to greater heights.

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